Hollywood stars like Kate Winslet and Viola Davis once wore Indian jeweler Nirav Modi’s dazzling ornaments on the red carpet, and Bollywood crossover Priyanka Chopra’s face adorned billboards advertising Modi’s eponymous brand. The diamond trader’s days as a media darling, however, appear to have come to an end. In a complaint filed with India’s federal investigative agency in January, state-run Punjab National Bank alleged that Modi was at the center of one of India’s biggest bank fraud schemes, reportedly involving at least $1.8 billion.
The scandal broke a week after Modi was photographed at the World Economic Forum in Davos in late January. Since then, he lost nearly all of his assets. The Indian government, which has been investigating the claims, has reportedly confiscated his possessions; the U.S. subsidiary of his jewelry company Firestar International filed for bankruptcy in late February in New York City. Modi could not be reached for comment but has reportedly denied the allegations. Calls to two of his retail stores, one in London and one in New York, were not answered. Forbes went to its store on the Upper East Side. While Modi’s name was still up outside of the store, its displays—still fully lit—were emptied and its blinds were closed.
In light of the recent bankruptcy filings and an ongoing investigation, Forbes removed Modi from its annual billionaires list. We suspect Firestar International’s “audited” financial statements, which were made available annually to our journalists by Modi and were used to evaluate his fortune, may not have reflected the truth about the company’s financials.
Modi and his uncle—who is also his business partner—allegedly colluded with a deputy manager at Punjab National Bank to qualify for hefty loans to support his businesses outside of India, according to the complaint. The manager, who retired in May 2017, fabricated fraudulent letters and bypassed the bank’s official procedures, thus avoiding detection of transactions guaranteeing loans to Modi’s companies without collateral, the bank alleges.
Although the complaint estimates that Modi and his partner allegedly embezzled $43 million (Rs 280.7 crores), Reuters and Bloomberg report that using allegedly fraudulent loans, Modi may have injected at least $1.8 billion into his companies. Local news outlets reported that Modi denied the $1.8 billion number (Rs 11,000 crores) in a letter to the bank and said the liability was substantially less.
As the investigation continues, Modi is reportedly staying at JW Marriott, a luxury hotel in Manhattan (The hotel neither confirmed nor denied Modi’s stay). He may also not be able to leave the U.S. in the near future. In February, India’s Ministry of External Affairs announced in a press release that it suspended passports of Modi and his uncle. Two weeks after the announcement, Modi’s U.S. subsidiary, Firestar Diamond, filed for bankruptcy with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Southern District of New York. The filing, which cited “liquidity and supply chain challenges” as the reason for this decision, revealed that the company had less than $100 million in estimated assets and also had liabilities worth $50-100 million.
Modi was born into a family of diamond traders. He grew up in Belgium and later dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to pursue the family craft with his uncle in India. In 1999, he struck out on his own and founded Firestar International. In 2017, Modi claimed Firestar pulled in more than $1.8 billion in sales in 2016. At the time, he provided Forbes with audited financials whose authenticity we now question.
The now 47-year-old jeweler joined Forbes’ billionaires ranks in 2013 with an estimated $1 billion fortune. Determined to enter the league of world’s most prominent jewelers—like Cartier, Chopard and Van Cleef & Arpels—Modi started out with stores in Delhi and Mumbai and expanded to New York, London, Macau and Hong Kong. In 2017, he tapped actress and former Miss World, Priyanka Chopra, as brand ambassador. (A representative for Chopra told Forbes that “in light of recent allegations, [Chopra] has chosen to terminate her contract with the Nirav Modi brand.”)
Forbes now estimates Modi’s net worth to be less than $100 million and lists him along with another 120 individuals who fell off the Forbes billionaires ranks in 2018.